The temptation of revenge is a topic explored by countless films in countless ways, from the iconic Death Wish series to the heart-stopping Korean classic I Saw The Devil, to Coralie Fargeat’s 2017 feature, Revenge, and dozens – maybe hundreds – more. That latter example aside, the overwhelming majority of these features centre around a male figure pursuing revenge against an antagonist that has harmed a woman in their lives (sorry Mario, but our princess is in another castle). In my opinion, it’s a tired, well-worn formula that has very little new ground to cover. Bridget Smith and Samuel Gonzalez Jr’s The Retaliators doesn’t exactly blaze any new trails in the revenge film department, but what’s there is executed very well and offers absurdly violent, popcorny thrills with a soundtrack that, if it’s your thing, bangs from wall to wall.
The Retaliators centres around the appropriately-named John Bishop (Michael Lombardi), a young pastor with two adoring daughters. He’s overprotective but not authoritarian and his daughters idolize him, playfully jabbing at his attempts to shelter them from the outside world. If nothing else, he’s a pacifist, illustrated in an early scene where an unruly customer claims the family’s Christmas tree for his own. Bishop, in front of his daughters, turns the other cheek and lets the man leave, demonstrating to his kids (and, later, churchgoers as he recounts the story in a sermon) that retribution isn’t viable. When his eldest daughter Sarah (Katie Kelly) is violently and senselessly murdered, though, Bishop’s views on revenge change. A hard-boiled police detective (Ozark’s Mark Menchaca), frustrated with the legal system’s inability to adequately punish criminals, seems to have a way for Bishop to confront his misgivings about retribution, but it involves a high moral cost.
The Retaliators has a number of tonal shifts throughout, evolving from a serious story about the morality of revenge to an absurd, and absurdly violent, climax more suited to a pulpy Robert Rodriguez flick. You can pinpoint the exact moment where Bishop casts off his previous misgivings about violence, straps on a gun, mounts a motorcycle, and goes ham. It betrays nearly everything we’ve come to know about the character up until that point and while there is a catalyst for the switch, it doesn’t exactly feel earned. But all of this is in the name of big, dumb fun and a climax that holds absolutely nothing back when it comes to action, gore, or quippy one-liners, so I’ll allow it. I might prefer if The Retaliators picked a lane a little earlier, or at least hinted at it’s b-movie sensibility in the first half (granted, the film’s poster does suggest this), but the on-a-dime switch with Bishop and the story in general got big laughs from me. It makes for the perfect Midnight movie fare, and I can imagine this being an absolute riot with an audience.
The Retaliators features a number of cameos of varying importance from rock frontmen such as Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach, Tommy Lee, and others. If this type of music is your thing (it personally isn’t, really, for me) then spotting these guys will be a treat. Otherwise, The Retaliators is quite well-acted and shot, and almost feels a bit too polished for the type of subject matter here. A little grime on the lens or a bit of a rough-around-the-edges aesthetic might help to emphasize the atmosphere, but it’s a minor quibble. What’s more of a problem for me is that the ‘white knight’ revenge story feels more than a little dated to me. The Retaliators really doesn’t give it’s female characters any more agency or development than revenge films dating back to the 70’s and earlier, rendering them as mere props to drive the (male) main character forward. There’s still a place for those stories, I suppose, but if you’re looking for a story that upends those tropes, this ain’t it.
I don’t know that I’d call it essential viewing, but if you’re looking for a fun revenge film with a tiny bit more than the average story, and a whole lot more rock sensibility, The Retaliators should be right up your alley.
Bridget Smith and Samuel Gonzalez Jr’s The Retaliators screened this week as the opening night film at the Screamfest festival. Release details to follow from Better Noise Films.